Saturday, August 05, 2006

SATURDAY MORNING CULT TV BLOGGING: Flash Gordon: "A Planet in Peril"

With the first season of Land of the Lost behind me, I shift to another Saturday morning cult tv fixture from my cherished youth, Filmation's animated series from 1980-1981: Flash Gordon!

The Filmation version of the Alex Raymond legend is a bit more naive and straightforward than the campy 1980 movie starring Sam Jones (which I love), but I have great memories of watching this show. In fact, I still own many of the toys from the series, including action figures of Flash, Ming and Dr. Zarkov. I also have (an inflatable...) toy of Flash's rocketship, which is featured in the first episode of the series. Lately, I've had fun flying it around my office.

"A Planet in Peril, Chapter One," by Sam Peeples begins with action, action, action. The planet Mongo is on a collision course with Earth, and Flash Gordon, Dale Arden and Dr. Hans Zarkov have launched into space to discover why. Unfortunately, Ming's warships shoot down their spacecraft, and - in a scene that reminded of me of Planet of the Apes, the rocket spectacularly crashes in a lake on Mongo.

Before long, the Earthlings are captured by Ming's "sea mutants," his fishermen. They have also netted Arborea's Prince Barin (who here has a very nasal voice and is bald...) and Thun, a Lion Man. These captives tell Flash and the others that Ming is "emperor of the universe" and that he maintains his control of Mongo because every race on Mongo is the enemy of every other race on Mongo.

And I thought Ming promised to be a uniter, not a divider...

Although Flash, Zarkov and Dale escape the fishermen, they are soon hunted in the "Dire Marsh" by sexy Princess Aura and her witch woman warriors. They all wear sexy metal bikinis and mount giant ostrich creatures. This is where the episode really picks up...

The episode climaxes as Flash and his buddies are taken to Ming's throne room. Ming forces Thun and Flash into the arena, where they battle a giant "training ball" equipped with lasers. The episode ends on a cliffhanger, and man...I was left wanting more. The episode literally moves at warp speed.

I've always loved the retro-1930s feel of this version of Flash Gordon, whether it be the art-deco design of Mingo City, or the anti-fascism message embedded in the material (and taken straight from the source material). I also really enjoy Filmation's art work, which is often criticized, but I believe rather impressive given the time and budget restraints of the day. This is a fun show, and I can't wait for the next adventure on Mongo.

SATURDAY MORNING CULT TV BLOGGING: Land of the Lost: "Circle"

Well, I've reached episode seventeen, "Circle," the last episode of Land of the Lost's first season. This is where I will leave the show for a while. Though I plan to return. One day soon.

But before we say our goodbyes to the Marshalls, let's discuss this episode by Larry Niven and David Gerrold(and directed by Dennis Steinmetz), because I think it's one of the series' absolute highpoints.

The episode finds Will, Holly and Rick Marshall at a swimming hole by the swamp when Will locates an underwater cavern that looks a lot like the Lost City. The Marshalls explore it and find the Sleestak...hibernating. Apparently, it's the dormant season for the giant lizard people. Then comes one of the episode's highpoints: the monstrous Sleestak suddenly awake and chase the Marshalls through the catacombs. If I were a little kid watching this sequence, I'd run right up to bed and hide under the covers. The best moment in the dramatic chase occurs when one Sleestak pursues Holly out of the cave and swamp, and rises up out of the water like the shark in Jaws (or the Daleks in "The Dalek Invasion of Earth." Yikes!

After escaping from the Sleestak, Will makes it to the Lost City and finds Enik, who is "unable to leave" the Land of the Lost. Turns out there's a problem with the time door. Namely, the "law of conservation of temporal momentum has been reversed." Nothing can leave the land of the lost unless an object of equal temporal mass leaves.

This imbalance must be corrected, and it involves the Marshalls. Turns out they never really fully entered the land of the lost at all. Simultaneously, they are both stuck on the rapids and stuck in the land of the lost - in essence straddling two "realities." Let me just say that the manner in which the writers resolve this temporal problem is quite clever, and essentially "re-boots" the whole series.

When "Circle" ends, our set of Marshalls have escaped from the Land of the Lost, and returned home. But another set of Marshalls - those trapped on the rapids - have entered. At the time, this was the writer's way of explaining a season of reruns. A "new" set of Marshalls (without memory of their captivity in the land...) would have all new adventures. Get it?

Of course, there are some problems with this conceit. One is: wouldn't Cha-Ka be confused? Suddenly, the Marshalls don't remember him or the other Paku, you know? He'd have to start his friendship with them from scratch. (and wouldn't they wonder why he knows their names, and speaks pidgin English?) Another problem is the cave at High Bluff. So far as I can tell, the first set of Marshalls, before they left the land of the lost, didn't clean up their cave. Which, from evidence in earlier episodes, would have a broom, backpacks, pots and pans, and all kinds of homemade Gilligan's Island style accoutrements. So technically, when Marshall family # 2 arrives at the cave, they should find all of their stuff already there. But this doesn't happen, for some reason.

Lastly, "Circle" has a problem with continuity. Enik establishes that the time doors are stuck, and that the presence of the Marshall family is disrupting them. Okay, then how come that parachutist was able to enter the land of the lost through a time door in the previous episode, "Hurricane?" I don't get it.

Still, this is a cool episode of Land of the Lost, because it deals with the concept of a time loop; but more succinctly a notion that is growing more accepted in quantum mechanics today. Which is simply this: identity is not linear...only our memory and concept of time (which is unreal) makes it feel that way. So therefore, the Marshalls on the rapids are distinct and different entities from the Marshalls in the land of the lost. This is called the "timeless" theory in quantum physics, and it's come a long way since 1975, but still, it's amazing that Land of the Lost - a kid's show from thirty years ago - plays with the concept.

So, for now, with admiration and nostalgia, I'll say "ganecktik" (meaning "go in peace" in Altrusian...) to the Land of the Lost and the Marshalls.

Friday, August 04, 2006

The House Between at Out of Order

Hey, Debra Burrell's column, Out of Order features an encouraging review of the first episode of The House Between!

Debra and I have shared con panels before (and she's quietly incited me to make mischief on them...), and she attended the screening of "Arrived" after Fantasci V last week.

Here's what she had to say about the first episode (and you can check out the entire column
here):

It was really good! I forgave a lot of audio discrepancies because it is a rough cut, but the premise is excellent, the acting is first rate, and if you're going to have 5 people locked into an empty house together, you'd better have a darn good writer -- which this show has. The producer is Joe Maddrey, who is a producer of "A Haunting" on Discovery Channel, and the author of "Nightmares in Red, White and Blue: The Evolution of the American Horror Film."

The stark B&W look, the flat blacked out windows and doors, the inability to determine day or night, it's all surreal. Call it an "irreality show." This is not like the patently phony "Surreal Life," which pretends to be real. This is more like the play it frankly emulates, "No Exit," only with a contemporary house and a few more people -- and, from the teasers I heard, more plot twists. I'm definitely looking foward to all the episodes.

Thanks, Debra for the kind words and the encouragement.

MOVIE REVIEW: The Aristocrats (2005)

Heard any good dirty jokes lately?

Paul Provenza's 2005 fun documentary, The Aristocrats, is the living chronicle of one particular dirty joke. I don't know if the descriptor "dirty" actually does the joke justice. Anyway, the film features on-camera interviews with a gaggle of first-rate comedians; each of whom boasts some filthy or clever variation on a joke that ends with the punchline "...the Aristocrats."

Among those who appear in the film (in quasi-alphabetical order): Jason Alexander, Hank Azaria, Lewis Black, David Brenner, Drew Carey, George Carlin, Carrot Top, Andy Dick, Phyllis Diller, Carrie Fisher, Whoopi Goldberg, Gilbert Gottfried, Eddie Izzard, Richard Lewis, Bill Maher, Howie Mandel, Michael McKean, Larry Miller, Kevin Nealon, Penn & Teller, Emo Phillips, Kevin Pollak, Paul Reiser, Andy Richter, Don Rickles, Chris Rock, Bob Saget, Harry Shearer, Sara Silverman, The Smothers Brothers, Fred Willard, Robin Williams, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, and Jon Stewart.

Oh, and Billy the Mime...

So yeah, basically this is ninety-or-so-minutes of variations of the same dirty joke. And you know what? The movie is funny as hell. I thought the best two variations on the joke came from the Smothers Brothers - who use their dynamic and brilliant interpersonal chemistry to make the filth fly; and Sara Silverman - who personalizes the story to an uncomfortable degree. Howie Mandel wins the award for filthiest and shortest variation of the joke, while Bob Saget - yes, Bob Saget - must accept the prize for the long-form recounting of the joke. His version is absolutely foul. Gilbert Gottfried also does a stunning, gasp-provoking variation of the joke before a live audience and hits it out of the park, and it's fun to watch Rob Schneider collapse into embarrassed hysterics nearby.

Why, even big-boned Eric Cartman tells the joke to his South Park buddies, and Billy the Mime acts out (silently...) a very *ahem* physical version of it...before the curious eyes of bystanders. Amazingly, the repetition of the joke doesn't really get old during the documentary's running time. The film - like the joke itself - is dependent on timing. New elements of the joke come in at precisely the right time to keep things from getting dull. Provenza had a good editor (or team of editors...) and it shows.

George Carlin may be the film's most valuable player, for he deconstructs and dissects the joke in loving detail and explains each component of the piece. He explains why each piece of the joke's puzzle is important, and what it accomplishes. It's sort of a critical analysis of a piece of shit joke. Yet, in all honesty (and to my surprise), Penn and Teller describe the nature of the joke - and indeed the film - best. The "aristocrat" joke, they suggest, is one in which the singer, not the song is important. The personal traits that each comedian brings to his or her performance is ultimately more important than the punchline; which comedian Larry Miller admits is a tad on the weak side.

Ultimately, the joke featured in The Aristocrats serves as a Rorschach Test of sorts. For the joke to work, the middle section (which involves a family vaudeville act...) must be heavily improvised. Basically, something really disgusting must happen in that middle piece of the joke. What qualifies as "disgusting?" Good question. That's the rub! The answer, I suppose, is that it depends entirely on individual personality. Some comedians go for bodily-function humor (fecal matter, vomit, urination, cum...) while others leap headlong into sexual dysfunction - incest, skull-fucking, bestiality....you name it.

Do you know the joke? This was the variation I heard:

An agent returns to his office after a two-tequila lunch to find a little man in a tuxedo waiting there for him. The agent is pissed off that the fellow is in his office, and quickly sizes him up. He's got a bad comb-over, but he's impeccably dressed.

"What can I do for you?" the agent asks, hoping to get this guy out of his office ASAP. He has more important things to do than book a new talent today...

"I want to show you my act," the man responds gingerly.

"All right, shoot," suggests the agent, already thinking about phone calls he needs to make before the end of the day.

The man nods, sensing the agent's ennui, and goes to the door. He opens the door, puts his fingers in his mouth...and whistles. In no time flat, his family dashes into the office...which is now seeming awfully cramped.

The agent looks around at the bunch. There are two kids, a ten year-old boy and his six-year old sister. There's a well-dressed woman who's clearly the man's wife and the mother of the brood. And then there's a stooped old man with a walker - the patriarch and grandfather of the clan, no doubt.

"I'm waiting..." the agent says after a long moment of silence, resisting the urge to check his watch.

The man makes eye contact with each family member, and there's a feeling of anticipation in the room for an instant. They seem to be counting together in their heads, ticking off the seconds before they begin their routine.

Then, the man unceremoniously grabs his wife. He slaps her across the face, punches her in the gut, tears open her blouse and throws her to the floor. Then, with a grandiose gesture and a smile to his audience, he unzips his zipper, and...

Well, anyway..you get the idea. You didn't really think I was going to tell THAT joke on my blog, did you?

See the movie. It's called...The Aristrocrats.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Interview: horror film scholar Florent Christol

Florent Christol is a horror film scholar, one who works and writes in Montpellier, in the south of France. He's had terrific, richly-researched and rigorously-argued articles published in French film journals including Simulacres and CinemAction, and is currently working on a dissertation on the subject of the carnavalesque in horror films.

Flo and his lovely and sweet girlfriend Tara dropped by my house yesterday to hang out and screen the rough cut of the inaugural episode of my series, The House Between. I sequestered Florent in my office for a time to catch up with his numerous (and impressive...) writing activities...

MUIR: Update me a little bit about your work in these French film journals...

FLORENT: I've written two pieces on Tobe Hooper. One is about the way Tobe Hooper uses Psycho by Hitchcock in different forms. I wanted to work on that because so many people have seen that with Brian De Palma, but I thought Hooper used Psycho in an interesting way. I would say he dismembers that film, taking several shots and putting them back together. He uses Psycho as a puzzle.

My second piece was on the carnavalesque in the Tobe Hooper film. Of course, you can see that in The Funhouse, which is set in a carnival. But I wanted to see why - from the start - that was something important for him. That led me to the topic of my dissertation, which is about how the American horror film is a wonderful place to highlight the carnavelsque culture, which started in Europe. The Puritans, when they arrived in America, banned carnavelsque holidays. They thought they were too transgressive, like Christmas originally...which was more about drinking and not really celebrating the birth of the Christ.

So these transgressive rituals were banned, and when something is banned or repressed it returns. Freud has talked about the return of the repressed, and Robin Wood wrote his famous piece about the return of the repressed in the American horror film.

However, my interest is not really psycho-analysis, but more anthropological and sociological. So in my dissertation, I start at the beginning and see how the first horror films - like Freaks or the Frankenstein series by James Whale can be seen through a carnavalesque lens with this kind of monster, this transgressive menace, that comes from outside and is a chaotic force, a bit like carnival. And when it leaves, order can be settled once again.

When you get to the sixties and the seventies and especially in the eighties with the slasher film, the "party" is basically the main theme of the film. Movies like Killer Party or Slumber Party Massacre or Killer Clowns or Clownhouse by Victor Salva. So, there are lots of things to discuss.

MUIR: If you had to pick one film to embody your thesis...

FLORENT: It would be The Funhouse. Hooper summarizes it wonderfully - and visually - what I would like to show and prove, if I can say that. Basically, there is this wonderful moment when the monster who wears the Frankenstein mask...suddenly people realize there's also a monster underneath. A monster is hidden behind another monster, and I think that what Tobe Hooper wants to show here is how the original Frankenstein films were already wondering about what to do with the carnavalesque. The answer at that time was "let's burn it."

The menace in the original Frankenstein is isolated in the body of the monster, and it can easily be evacuated. It's not the same thing in the sixties and seventies because of all the historical changes in America. People realized that chaos was basically everywhere, and not just from outside...from Europe, for instance. The carnival in The Funhouse is a wonderful space to demonstrate these kind of things. It's an exercise almost in deconstruction, because it deconstructs the American horror film as a carnavlesque thing, as something which hides the real horror, which is everywhere. There is this game between the mask and the illusion, and on the other side something which is real; which is the presence of death.

Hollywood cinema has always tried to hide the fact that death was here, and the fact that death is present in The Funhouse is like the most horrifying thing you can think about. Normally a funhouse is meant to exorcise death. You go through a funhouse like you go through a horror film, and when you leave, you're alive. But if you go in and you're dead in the end...there's something very wrong. And I think that Tobe Hooper understood that.

MUIR: So you - like me - are a huge admirer of Tobe Hooper...

FLORENT: I really like him. I just finished watching Mortuary, which is his last released film, I believe. Lots of people are disappointed because Tobe Hooper has done some not-very-great movies recently, but I thought this one was pretty good. It reminded me of another favorite Hooper film, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. I am also trying to write something on that film right now.

MUIR: Does Mortuary feature his typical theme of having two villains working in conjunction; one with an acceptable face and one with an unacceptable face?

FLORENT: I think the theme is more in the George Romero living dead vein. Also, there is the theme of contamination, and people turn into zombies. Which I love...

Apart from that, I've published a paper on Jacques Tourneur, who is both a French and American director. He directed some very famous film noirs in the 1940s, and some famous horror/fantasy films, like I Walked with A Zombie or the original Cat People...not the remake. Also, Curse of the Demon. Once again, I use the carnavalesque theory.

MUIR
: This is your piece, "Tourneur et le carnavelsque: une poetique ruinee?" Tell me about it.

FLORENT: The interesting thing about his films is that they take place a few years after the original Universal classics, wherein the monsters are always evacuated in the end, thanks to the wonderful special effects by Jack Pierce and other people. But with Jacques Tourneur, he was working with a low budget, and his producer, Val Lewton...they didn't have any money. So they couldn't really show the monster, because there was no Jack Pierce to provide great make-up. They didn't have the money to make a credible or interesting monster, so he went ahead with the suggestive approach.

Many people theorize that it's always scarier when you don't see the monster. I'm not sure I really agree with that. A monster can be very wonderful...we all remember the monster in Alien or Aliens. Any kind of great director will do a great job whatever the case. What's interesting is the result of what happens when you don't see the monster. With Jacques Tourneur what I wanted to show is the fact that the monster cannot be seen and therefore cannot be evacuated, cannot be gotten rid of. Therefore it contaminates the entire film. The monster is everywhere, because he's not in a specific place. There are monstrous spaces in his films, where metamorphosis can happen.

What's interesting in Jacques Tourneur movie is that some people (meaning critics) don't think there are monsters at all. Maybe there are no monsters. Maybe it's psychological. For me, the monster is the film itself. It's not a monstrous figure, it's the movie. The style is grotesque, the way he edits the film...there are lots of things that can be linked to the carnavalesque aesthetic. Once again, this is proof that the American horror film is grappling with this cultural legacy - the carnival - which was rejected from the very beginning; which always comes back. Either with the monster, as an isolated figure, or as the film itself; a monstrous body.

MUIR: Where can readers find this paper?

FLORENT: This is in CinemaAction. It was published a few months ago. The issue is interesting...

MUIR: All right, buddy, time for the lightning round of the interview. This is the idea: Horror films are being destroyed at a rapid rate. You're trying to save them, but here's the rub. You can only save one film from each director. I'll name a director, you tell me which film you save. Okay?

FLORENT: Okay.

MUIR: John Carpenter?

FLORENT: Halloween.

MUIR: Post-1985?

FLORENT: That's tougher. I would say In The Mouth of Madness.

MUIR:
Wes Craven?

FLORENT: It's between The Hills Have Eyes and the original A Nightmare on Elm Street, but I think I'd have to choose Nightmare. Seeing Johnny Depp get killed is always fun.

MUIR: Sam Raimi?

FLORENT: That's tricky. Probably the sequel to The Evil Dead.

MUIR: So let me get this right, you'd pick comedy over balls-to-the-wall horror?

FLORENT: Yeah, I'm afraid so. It's my taste for the carnavalesque.

MUIR: David Cronenberg?

FLORENT: I would go ahead with The Brood.

MUIR: Tobe Hooper. You just get one.

FLORENT: Although I think his most interesting film is Texas Chainsaw II, I would go ahead with The Funhouse.

MUIR: You wouldn't save Lifeforce?

FLORENT: Maybe. For Mathilda May...

MUIR: Larry Cohen?

FLORENT: He's very underrated. This guy has created so many interesting films. His trilogy of It's Alive is very interesting, but I think his best movie is God Told Me To.

MUIR: Here's a curveball. William Girdler?

FLORENT: Grizzly. Definitely.

MUIR: Hitchcock?

FLORENT: Psycho.

MUIR: De Palma?

FLORENT: That's tough. I like Sisters, but I'm not sure that...

MUIR: I'd pick Dressed to Kill.

FLORENT: I could have said Dressed to Kill, but you just said it. So I would probably pick Obsession.

MUIR: David Fincher?

FLORENT: I'd pick Alien 3. It's the first film I saw by Fincher, and I think it's a great film.

MUIR: Now, I heard you've done some acting recently. Is that true? (Editor's note: Florent plays Sange, the villain of The House Between's sixth episode, "Trashed.")

FLORENT: No. I would say I've done some anti-acting in what is otherwise a wonderful program. I was invited by this person who is interviewing me right now...

MUIR...conflict of interest...

FLORENT: Read his books. I encourage you to read them.

MUIR: Thank you.

FLORENT: No, I had a great time doing the show. I can't wait to see the results. I think it's going to be a masterpiece.

MUIR: You are brilliant at playing a very evil man...

FLORENT: It's the French touch...

MUIR: Did you have a hard time, saying all this brutal - almost hardcore - dialogue to people you'd never met?

FLORENT: That's right. I tried to be as natural as possible. I'm a very mean guy in everyday life. So it wasn't that hard for me.

MUIR: That's totally not true. How did you like abusing the other actors?

FLORENT: I had the time of my life. I can't wait to do it again. In the remake or the sequel. I think that the most enjoyable part was being surrounded by really nice people. All of them are really into the stuff I like, horror and sci-fi. It was just a very wonderful human experience.

MUIR: Okay, if we're back to horror films being destroyed. What's the one title you'd save from the 21st century?

FLORENT: That's a hard question. The one that had the most impact on me, which terrified me...was the American version of The Ring. I know many people prefer the original, but I thought the American version was very well done. The topic itself is not that original, but the treatment was fascinating. I was disappointed by the sequel.

MUIR: It missed the mark a bit. It was a bit dreary, wasn't it? What are your thoughts on The Descent?

FLORENT: I thought The Descent was really good. Maybe because I've read so many things about it, I wasn't as surprised. I had seen pictures in magazines of the monsters. I was disappointed because I'd already seen the face of the "bad guy." But objectively, I think it's a great film. I'd like to see Dog Soldiers, the first film by Neill Marshall. I'm ready to see The Descent again because it comes out this Friday on the American screen. I'm going to take my girlfriend...

MUIR: Flo, thank you so much for your time. Best of luck with all your future endeavors. Can't wait to cut together your episode of The House Between, and I look forward to the completion of your thesis on the carnavalesque in the American horror film.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

TV REVIEW: Rome

Rome...if you want to. Rome...around the world.

These days, it appears that HBO is eating the other major TV networks for breakfast. I mean, this is the channel that offers the satiric Entourage, the Spanish-language serial killer thriller, Epitafios, as well as three of the best comedies on television (Curb Your Enthusiasm, Extras, The Comeback...). HBO is also the only channel bolstering scorching period pieces such as the Western Deadwood and this series, the lush and sumptuous Rome.

One of the best elements of Rome, if you forgive me for stating this so bluntly, is that it's not only extremely dramatic and compelling; it's also a rampant, over-the-top sex fest. Everybody is having sex with everyone here...and wow, like who wouldn't enjoy seeing that? ! Let's see, there's sex used as a weapon, as a power-play (between Cleopatra and Caesar); hot lesbian sex (Servilla and Octavia), incestuous sex (Octavia and Octavius), good old-fashioned married sex (mmm...married sex....) between Niobe and Vorenus, slave/master sex involving Pullo and his girl, and inter-class sex between the scheming noble woman, Atia and her underling, Timon. It would be tempting to say that there's so much sex going on in this series that you'll forget the details of the complex plot, but that's not likely. Rome is brilliantly scripted and the sex (often involving such lovely women as Kama Sutra's Indira Varma and Sliver's Polly Walker...) is only one piece of the impressive tapestry.

Rome is the story of Julius Caesar's rise to power. The series opens in Gaul, where Caesar (Ciaran Hinds) has been conquering barbarians for years and is ready to make a triumphant journey home. Meanwhile, back in Rome, Pompey (Hellbound's Dr. Channard, Kenneth Cranham) and many of the Senators fear that Julius has become so popular with the common man that he will seize power and turn the Republic into an Empire. Their fears are justified, and before long, Caesar crosses the Rubicon to take his place as Rome's only pro-counsel. The series follows the conflict between Pompey and Caesar from Rome to Greece to Egypt, and there are a few splendid battle sequences, though actual warfare is not the series' point. To the contrary, social warfare is the order of the day, as Caesar's family, led by the scheming Atia, seeks to dominate Roman city life at the expense of...everybody else.

What's truly exciting about Rome, besides the sex and the incredible production design (and by the way -- you feel that you are really there, living in that time) is that the series often adopts the viewpoint of two average joes, two low-ranking Roman soldiers trying to make their way in the cruel world. Vorenus and Pullo are these Roman "everymen," and their experiences contrast effectively with those of consuls, queens, senators and nobles. Vorenus and Pullo keep the series grounded, and illuminate what daily life must have been like in Rome all those years ago. They're also funny as hell, going from battlefield to business; traveling from land to land; being shipwrecked and even having interludes with Cleopatra.

Rome will be back for a second season; and I'm still working my way through the first season. At this point, Caesar has mastered all of Egypt (and romanced the manipulative Cleopatra), vanquished his Roman enemies (Cato and Scipio) and now stands astride the world.

How long before the tide turns? Only the producers and writers on this series know for sure. But I'll definitely be tuning in. I heard that HBO is canceling Rome after the second season, to which I can only say: Et tu, HBO? Sometimes even smart channels do stupid things, I guess...

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

TV REVIEW: The Comeback

Did anybody watch this show on HBO when it aired last August? I know I didn't; but now it's back on HBO on Demand and I gave it a cautious screening yesterday. I ended up watched six episodes in a clip and staying up too late.

I've never been a huge Lisa Kudrow fan because I never understood why Friends was so damn popular while at the same time being so damn unfunny, but - no bull - this actress is amazing in this series. Truly, her performance is Emmy-worthy, even if the series has been cancelled. Her work in The Comeback is really a revelation.

For those of you who haven't watched, The Comeback is the tale of Valerie Cherish (Kudrow), once the star of a bad 1980s-1990s sitcom called "I'm It." The show ran for 97 episodes and then was dumped after audience backlash over a Rodney King joke that came too soon after the L.A. riots. It was either that, or the fact that a chimp was added to the cast in the last season...

Now, thirteen years after "I'm It," Cherish is back, simultaneously starring in a reality show called "The Comeback" and a new sitcom called "Room and Bored." Only problem is, the sitcom has suffered through a drastic re-imagining after the pilot, and instead of playing a smart condo-owner who also happens to be an architect, Valerie has been reduced to playing Aunt Sassy, an over-the-hill bitter lady whose fashion-sense runs to pastel jogging suits. Her co-stars are all horny twenty-somethings, and so Valerie is - well - out of place. Her catchphrase is "Note to self: I don't need to see that!" The sequence in which Valerie rehearses this phrase (while simultaneously eating half a chocolate cake), is wicked fun.

The Comeback is filmed via the auspices of the mockumentary format popularized by Christopher Guest and TV series such as The Office. So Valerie spends an inordinate amount of time talking to the cameras, and her life unfolds cinema-verite-style, before our very eyes. It's a slow-motion train wreck, and extremely funny.

In the pilot for instance, Valerie attempts to make a touching confession before her personal "video diary" camera set up in her bathroom. However, while she makes art before the camera, her husband Mark - just feet away - is (loudly) using the toilet. That might be low humor, but heck, it's funny.

In another episode, "Valerie Demands Dignity," Valerie is disturbed to learn (from Entertainment Weekly...) that reality tv is dead and so her producers have decided to couple her show with a new series about a midget; called "The Littlest Assistant." The sparks fly when this little person attempts to spice up Valerie's life for ratings.

In case you hadn't guessed, The Comeback is a blistering indictment of all things Hollywood. From insipid sitcoms to seedy reality shows, to star-sized egos. On that basis alone, it's a lot of fun. I especially enjoyed some of the clips of other TV shows airing on Valerie's network. There's a game show called "Take That" in which spouses earn points and win money by literally bludgeoning each other with shovels and two-by-fours. Husbands get $200,000 dollars for a blow to the wife's head...

Another show, "The Search for America's Next Great Porn Star" has a gag in it that I probably shouldn't write about. Let's just say it involves a group of aspirants running up a flight of stairs (trying to get to a bucket...) while holding some creamy material in their mouths. Whoever makes it without spitting up first is the winner of this particular contest.

I don't know why The Comeback isn't coming back. It's raw, witty and true. The comedy is carefully observed, and there's a sadness about the whole enterprise because Cherish - like David Brent - doesn't realize what a pill she is. The Comeback is a perfect companion piece for Entourage, so I don't know why HBO dumped it.

August column up at Far Sector

This month's JKM column at the E-Zine Far Sector is now posted! Check it out. The subject is the advent of independent TV, and my own spearhead into that venture, The House Between.

Here's a sample:

I suspect that independent and enterprising artists will very soon be fashioning their own Internet series. I predict these projects will be highly individual, curious, spiky and strange…and not at all like the homogenized entertainment we’ve grown accustomed to in the boob tube.

I have evidence, in fact, that this is happening because—hopefully—I’m on the vanguard. To wit: not long ago, I scripted, produced, cast, directed and edited my very own science fiction “series” called The House Between. It will be streamed online in late 2006 or early 2007.

Joe Maddrey, a producer on the Discovery Channel series A Haunting, joined me for this super low-budget venture and together with a small crew and a cast of five actors, we toiled to create something new and original. And, forgive me if this sounds like a Frank Sinatra song (by way of Sid Vicious…), but…hell…we did it our way.

By that I simply mean that we steered our own ship, without committee, without interference. Our production team was sequestered in an empty old house during the shooting schedule. Over the span of seven very, very long days we shot seven original half-hour scripts. As you might guess from the title, the premise concerns a mysterious, Spartan house where five strangers awaken to find themselves trapped. Like the Sartre play, there are no exits, and worse…no one can fathom the reason behind this unusual captivity..."


To read more, head on over to Far Sector!


Monday, July 31, 2006

Fantasci V!


Hey everybody!

Well, we're back from the fifth annual Fantasci convention in Virginia, and had a fantastic time. The weekend started out in particularly fun form because Kathryn and I had the pleasure of sharing our Scion XB for the six-hour trip with the lovely and talented actress Alicia A. Wood. Of course, - and this is par for us - we got lost along the way, but Alicia handled our wrong turns well. Still, she didn't much care for the music we forced her to endure en route - Squeeze and the soundtrack to A Mighty Wind - but Alicia stood up under the pressure.

As a side note, I should comment that I discovered this weekend that Alicia is herself a closet geek...a Harry Potter and anime geek. She's also educating herself by watching the Star Trek movies for the first time. I tell you, she's going to make a great Vulcan one of these days. I even taught her the Vulcan salute. To which she replied, "I've never actually seen anyone do that." It was like she was seeing an animal in a zoo or something.

The show was a tremendous amount of fun. There was fellowship, great panels, merchandise galore and a hall full of Klingons and pirates. Which got me thinking...Klingons were originally kind of like space pirates, weren't they? Discuss amongst yourselves...

The convention was a multi-faceted show with lots of things going on, and I met some great new friends, including a writer from Horrorwatch named BQueen, who offers her con report
here. She and I are on the same page about M. Night Shyamalan and Kevin Smith, but that doesn't really matter. What does matter is that she's a very cool and nice person, and I enjoyed our chat. We talked about The Descent, one of the best horror movies in years, and she had already read an advance copy of a horror novel I have in my queue, The Ruins.

Another new friend is Clay Hornik, a very thoughtful and friendly guy (and also - like BQueen - a fellow writer). We discussed matters about Doctor Who, particularly the new show, and Clay very kindly attended the showing of the first episode of my series, The House Between. He had nice feedback too, which is always better to get than negative feedback. Go visit Clay's Bookworm and Beyond
blog and read his feelings on the convention, and here's the money quote on The House Between:

"It does for Big Brother what Lost does for Survivor, reminiscent of both The Cube and The Prisoner, but made all the more creepy by the setting: an ordinary house, ordinary except for the void that surrounds it and the utter inescapability of the situation. The doors and windows won't open and there's nothing to see outside other than blackness. "

And that brings me Saturday night, and the premiere of the trailer for The House Between. Well, uh...we actually showed the rough cut of the first episode, "Arrived" instead. I was swayed by my Svengali-esque producer and most trusted confidante, Joe Maddrey, to go ahead and screen the thing - warts and all - and then go with the trailer afterwards. As usual, Joe was absolutely right on. How do you do it, Joe? This guy is ten years younger than me and yet infinitely wiser...I don't get it. Anyway, as I said, Joe was correct. Showing the episode was the way to go. We got a great reaction. The audience laughed at the right places, and to my immense amusement, one lady sitting across the aisle from me even jumped and gasped during a tense moment. How cool is that?

The best part of the night (and the weekend) was simply being with all my buddies. Both from the TV show and from the region itself (where I've been a speaker at cons before). These are just the coolest, funniest, nicest people on Earth, and whenever I'm with them, I just want to soak up their presence and keep it close to my soul. Would it be weird for me to say that Kathryn and I are in love with absolutely every one of these folks? Well, weird it can be, because I just said it...


I want to thank my friends and partners in crime, Jim Blanton and Rob Floyd too, for inviting me to the con once more, and for providing me the venue to screen The House Between. You guys are the best.


Now, who wants to talk about Battlestar Galactica?

Verbatim

Relevant passages highlighted in bold:

"See, we were young once and when the old guy spun his tales of Apollo and Starbuck, we were satisfied with clear-cut heroes and nakedly evil villains. But we're older now. We've eaten a lot of popcorn over the years. We're ready for a bigger meal. Make the story more complicated. Make the people less black-and-white. Challenge us, provoke us, grab us by the throat with those massive hands and dare us to invest ourselves in flawed characters who face ambiguous choices in an imperfect world. Dare us to root for heroes with all-too-human weaknesses. See if we'll still embrace them if they fall prey to their imperfections.

Ask us to care for human beings instead of caricatures.

With those words leading the way, I turned in the final draft of Battlestar Galactica. Bold words, perhaps. Arrogant even. But they accurately describe the ambition driving this project:

We believe you can explore adult themes with adult characters and still tell a ripping good yarn.

We believe that to portray human beings as flawed creations does not weaken them, it strengthens them.

We believe that bringing realism to science fiction is neither contradictory nor a fool's errand.

We believe that science fiction provides an opportunity to explore our own society, to provoke debate and to challenge our perceptions of ourselves and our fellow Man.

We believe science fiction can still be relevant.

We believe all these things and more.

If you agree with us, then this is the show for you. If not, then thanks for coming, but the popcorn is in a different aisle.

- Ronald D. Moore
- Executive Producer / Screenwriter